Belarus accuses Russians, Lukashenko critics of unrest plot

Minsk (AFP) –


Belarus investigators on Thursday accused Russian mercenaries and critics of President Alexander Lukashenko of working together to plot mass unrest as tensions increase in a pre-election crackdown.

The announcement was the latest twist in an extraordinary election campaign that has seen the 65-year-old leader, who has dominated Belarus for nearly three decades, jail major rivals ahead of the August 9 vote.

On Wednesday, the Belarusian KGB security service said it had arrested more than 30 Russian mercenaries on a mission to destabilise the ex-Soviet state, something the Kremlin dismissed as "insinuations".

On Thursday, the Belarusian Investigative Committee said it had launched an enquiry into the Russians, who were suspected of "preparations for mass riots".

Minsk says the 33 detained men are members of the Wagner group, a shadowy military contractor reportedly controlled by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin that supports his interests in Syria, Libya and elsewhere.

Investigators said the Russian mercenaries were collaborating with top Lukashenko critics Sergei Tikhanovsky and Mikola Statkevich, both of whom are in jail.

Authorities have opened a criminal case against "Tikhanovsky, Statkevich and 33 detained Russian citizens," Investigative Committee spokesman Sergei Kabakovich told AFP. "They acted together."

Tikhanovsky, 41, is a popular blogger, while Statkevich, 63, is one of the country's best-known opposition leaders.

Tikhanovsky's wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is running against Lukashenko and has become his main rival.

The blogger, who nicknamed Lukashenko the "cockroach", has not been allowed to run himself.

An Investigative Committee statement said another criminal probe had been launched against Tikhanovsky for inciting "social hostility" and calling for violence against law enforcement officers.

Belarusian authorities warned that security measures would be tightened as Tikhanovskaya prepared to hold a large rally in Minsk later Thursday.

In 2010, Statkevich challenged Lukashenko in a presidential poll and was afterwards sentenced to six years in prison.

He was released in 2015 but has not been allowed to participate in the current election.

Earlier Thursday, Belarus said it was still tracking down dozens of other mercenaries.

Moscow vehemently denied any involvement, pointing out that Belarus was a close ally.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said claims that "organisations from Russia are sending some people to destabilise the situation in Belarus" were "nothing but insinuations".

Belarus and Russia are "allies and very strong partners," he insisted, while questioning the legal basis for the arrests.

- 'Regime change' -

Russia is Minsk's closest political and economic ally but the relations have been strained for years.

Analysts struggled to explain the arrests, with some saying they were carefully-choreographed and gave Lukashenko an excuse to crack down harder on the opposition.

Belarusian military analyst Arseny Sivitsky suggested Russia might have sent mercenaries "to organise provocations on the eve of elections."

That could create a "pretext for the Kremlin to then interfere with force to change the regime," he said.

Russian daily Kommersant said that the "scandal could seriously inflame relations between Russia and its neighbour."

Belarus' foreign ministry said it had summoned Russian and Ukrainian diplomats to discuss the affair.

It cited "proven evidence" that some of those detained had fought in the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine and some had Ukrainian citizenship.

Ukraine's security service said it planned to "initiate extradition" of the men.

Russian author Zakhar Prilepin, who has fought with the separatists, wrote on Facebook that those detained were probably using Belarus as a transit point to "some other destination," that Belarus "surely knows very well".

National television showed several Russian passports allegedly belonging to the detained men, along with stacks of dollar bills, packs of condoms and pieces of paper with Arabic script.

The men also appeared to have been carrying Sudanese pounds.